Following the Spending Review, significant spending cuts are becoming a reality for many public services. The issue of how to engage citizens in budget consultations to define local priorities is becoming all the more important.
Redbridge have re-launched their YouChoose application for 2010, which allows residents to balance a complex budget using an interactive tool. The tool reveals consequences of your budget choices as you change the sliders to reduce the budget in different areas. There are four main areas to manage the budget within, which drill down to more detail. For example the consequences of reducing funding for Culture, Sport and Leisure results in libraries being closed. Using the tool requires quite a bit of time and may not appeal to people who have limited time on their hands to contribute their views.
This week Cambridgeshire Constabulary launched a budget balancing tool. It is similar to the Redbridge concept, but with a far simpler interface.
As a resident I gave it a go and had a few thoughts about the approach.
Personally I find these budget calculators a useful educational tool. They help demonstrate how complex budgets are allocated across different areas and how the spending cuts will dramatically affects budgets and therefore the challenges faced by the public sector. They won’t be for everyone though.
Judging by the comments on the Cambridgeshire Constabulary budget tool, some people find the exercise trivial, whilst others find it useful and insightful. Other people worry about the impact of their decisions and whether they are sufficiently well informed to prioritise budgets. The comments also reveal some interesting political perspectives and, occasionally, what I found to be less than palatable opinions. But that’s what a democracy is all about I guess!
However, as a resident what I would really like to do is enter into an active discussion with other residents, politicians and the organisation whose budget I am making choices about. For me these tools are the start of a consultation and conversation. I know that this approach would require resources for facilitation and moderation, but in my mind the type of decisions that need to be made to address the budget deficit require that depth of engagement. I would like to see these tools linked into hyperlocal websites, or a platform that is designed for deliberation, rather than leaving me wondering how residents’ choices are being reviewed and considered by those setting the budgets.
I’ve been looking around at quite a few emerging ideas and practise for public engagement recently. At the moment consultation processes in local government are generally still fairly archaic and ‘having your say’ might mean filling out a survey or attending a public meeting, exhibition or focus group.
The Power of Information report highlighted a few good examples of online consultations and made a sound recommendation as follows:
Implementing the tools – readily available elsewhere on the internet – which allow people to comment on individual items, to comment on other’s comments and to collaborate in developing and improving the content (perhaps through the sort of collective authorship we see on Wikipedia); the publication by DIUS of the Innovation White Paper and the Cabinet Office New Opportunities White Paper in this way are good examples of what can be done without major investment
I really liked the concept of Big City Talk in Birmingham, which was developed by a group of volunteers using WordPress, and allowed the public to read a lengthy planning consultation document in Plain English and add comments.
But even as Councils are getting themselves up to speed with the idea of responding to (and moderating) online comments within a couple of hours, a new tool is about to appear which demands realtime interaction. Google is due to launch its much anticipated communications tool Google Wave on September 30th and (apparently) it might just change how we communicate online completely.
Now I haven’t actually given Google Wave a go, but I have read lots of hype. So I was thinking about how the future of online consultation in 3-5 years could be a very different ball game indeed. Imagine this scenario…
You are invited to attend an online consultation about the local Council’s plans to build a major new housing development, which will provide affordable housing. The meeting is going to be relatively short, about 45 minutes.You start by viewing a short video about the development proposal and you look at interactive maps of the plans. You read associated snippets of documents. Then as the online consultation really gets underway, you join in discussions in realtime, along with other citizens, councillors, council officers and the developers. During the discussions further snippets of document, images and video are added by the participants relating to the points that are discussed. The facilitators focus the discussions on key themes. The discussions are fairly open and the facilitators invite you to take part in opinion polls as the discussions progress. The facilitator brings the meeting to a close and thanks the participants for taking part. After the meeting you replay some of the discussions that took place and read through some of the threads that you missed during the meeting. A couple of days later the Council post a formal response to all the points which couldn’t be addressed in the meeting, in context within the original discussions.
Well I might be naive in thinking this type of consultation might actually happen, in such an open and transparent way. Plus it could be a facilitators nightmare! But I can dream a little.
I wanted to add an addendum to this post. A friend who recently did an interesting talk on Google Wave at UXCampLondon suggested to me on Twitter “discussion could be hosted on council’s website, so people who are not on #googlewave could also read and comment“. I thought this was a great idea, so wanted to add it to this post.